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What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over — Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode? (qtd. in Hansberry 1771)
Lorraine Hansberry chooses to open her play, Raisin in the Sun, with a provocative poem by Langston Hughes. The poem foreshadows the conflict in the drama and the internal struggles of all of the main characters. The entire Younger family had to constantly contend with the obstacles that are presented by life on the Southside of Chicago. As Ralph A. Austen writes, “The term ‘bildungsroman’ (novel of ‘formation/’ ‘cultivation/’ or ‘development’) has, since the 1980s, come into wide use among critics of African…literature.” Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun can be considered a dramatic version of a bildungsroman because, although the main characters are physical adults, each of them experiences an obstacle that ironically ushers him or her into true adulthood.
Raisin in the Sun is written around a family of African Americans struggling to achieve a version of the American dream in a society where the odds are stacked against them. According to Michelle Gordon, “Raisin‘s forthright engagement with Chicago segregation at the grass roots exposes and denaturalizes the workings of mid-century urban segregation and massive white resistance to black self-determination. Like other influential black urban writers—including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Langston Hughes—Hansberry deploys her aesthetics of segregation to uncover ‘not only the results of segregation, but also the true and inescapable cause of it—which of course is the present organization of American society’” . To address the ‘results of segregation’ that each character faces, one must focus on the first line of Hughes’ poem. What actually happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Before addressing the man characters of this drama it is important to mention a character who never makes an appearance in the drama but has an important role in the dreams of the Younger family– Mr. Younger. The drama starts with the Younger family anticipating the ten thousand dollar payout on Mr. Younger’s life insurance policy. Every character has his or her own idea of how the insurance money should be spent. In fact, the excitement about their newfound financial stability is so dominant that it is hard to believe that it comes at the price of losing the patriarch of their family.
One is led to believe that Mr. Younger had a dream to move his family from the small three-bedroom apartment that they shared and into a home that they could call their own. After the family finds out that Walter was scammed and lost all the insurance money, Lena (Mama) Younger laments: “I seen… him… night after night… come in… and look at that rug… and then look at me… the red showing in his eyes… the veins moving in his head… I seen him grow thin and old before he was forty… working and working like somebody’s workhorse… killing himself… and you–you give it all away in a day” . Mr. Younger dream was deferred, even in death. He worked his entire life to give his family the security and life they all craved. His efforts may have even caused him to succumb to an early death. Hopes of his dream being realized are resurrected with his death only to be crushed again when Walter loses all the money in his attempts to fund a liquor store. Mr. Younger’s dream caused him to physically wither away. In addition, after the insurance money is lost, Mama Younger realizes that all his hard work and, inevitably, his life amount to is money that none of the family members could benefit from.
Does it fester like a sore-and then run? Walter Lee Younger is a man with big dreams and even bigger disappointments. He is continuously taking his frustrations out on the people who are closest to him. Throughout the majority of the novel, Walter Younger so concerned with making money that he continuously blames his family because he has been unable to obtain the riches he desires. Walter lashes out at his wife, Ruth, because he feels she never supports his dreams. Walter quips, “That’s what’s wrong with the colored woman in this world…Don’t understand about building their men up and making them feel like somebody. Like they can do something” (1777). Walter is jealous of his sister, Beneatha, because his mother is willing to financially support her dreams of becoming a doctor but won’t endorse any of his “ideas”. Naturally, Walter Lee is prone to having temper tantrums when he doesn’t get what he desires but he lacks the responsibility to carry out tasks like going to work and making good financial choices.
Although Walter’s stunted maturity is partly due to his domestic upbringing, it is also be contributed to the social setting that he is forced to live in. He is a man with a wife and child who, because of poverty, is forced to reside with his mother and sister in a small two-bedroom residence. Who wouldn’t be desperate for more? In a 1961 unfilmed screenplay of Raisin in the the Sun that was also written by Hansberry, Walter Lee, struggling with the knowledge that his mother has just used the insurance money to purchase a home in Clybourne Park, skips work and drives to a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Chicago where he stands to observe cows awaiting slaughter: “These open-air scenes are effectively juxtaposed with the claustrophobic apartment that is often the site of the drama in the play. Walter lives in two cramped rooms with his sister, mother, wife, and son, and feels cooped up as well in his job which requires him to spend much of the day in a car, at the beck and call of his boss” (Tritt 52). Walter’s anger stems not from hatred or jealousy towards the members of his family but from a frustration with his place in a society where all the odds are stacked against the black family unit. The result is a bitter man who unconsciously sets out on a path of self-sabotage that threatens to destroy him and his family.
Thankfully, Walter doesn’t end the play in this same arrested state, and it is through another dashed hope that Walter Lee reaches maturity. After he is conned out of the remaining insurance money, it seems as if all hope is lost for Walter. He makes plans to sell their recently purchased home back to the Clybourne Park Improvement Association for a profit. When Mr. Linder arrives to complete the purchase, Walter begins to think of his family, the hard work, sacrifice and the resilience it took to get them to a place where they could be homeowners. Walter states, “…We have all thought about your offer and we have decided to move into our house because my father–my father–he earned it…We don’t want your money” (1829). In that moment, Walter comes to the realization that the structure of his family is more important than any amount of economic wealth he could amass. Through this realization, he is able to make the dreams of his entire family, including himself and Mr. Younger, come true.
Does it stink like rotten meat? By all accounts, Beneatha is the great hope of her mother and her family. This intelligent, vivacious women is the epitome of early black feminism and self-awareness. Beneatha knows exactly what she wants and won’t be forced to settle for less by her brother or her potential suitor, George Murchison. However, somewhere along the lines Beneatha seems to have bought into her own hype, and instead of using her education to elevate her relatives she uses it to demean them. There is no mistaking the fact that Beneatha loves her family members but, because of her education, she views herself as superior to them and often belittles their beliefs, world views, and aspirations. When Lena says, “God willing” about Beneatha’s tuition payment, Beneatha’s begins an anti-religious rant in attempt to “educate” her mother on the allusion of theology. Beneatha proclaims: Mama, you don’t understand. It’s all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don’t accept. It’s not important…I just get tired of Him getting all the credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God–there is only man and it is he who makes who makes miracles!” (1785) Although Beneatha raises some valid questions, the delivery of her opinion is disrespectful, demeaning, and off-putting. Beneatha has a strong personality; this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. However, Beneatha’s lack of tact and constant need to assert herself as the family intellect often lead to arguments that affect the mood of the entire household.
Beneatha’s true enlightenment comes by way of her Nigerian suitor, Asagai. In the 2008 film version of Raisin in the Sun, Asagai points out, “There is something very wrong when all the dreams of a house depend on one man dying.” Beneatha eventually realizes that one setback should not be an excuse to give up on one’s dream. It is through this realization that Beneatha gains a renewed sense of purpose. Beneatha also begins to see her imperfection and the limitations of her education, an awareness which in turn helps her gain empathy for her family members and an understanding of the decisions that they have made for the family.
Does it crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? One of the most frequently glossed-over characters is Ruth Younger. Ruth does serves as a mirror of the matriarch of the family, but she also faces her own personal trials in the play. In a family that seems to be at constant odds, Ruth is the voice of reason: she is the peacemaker and the homemaker. Ruth is the only character besides Mama Younger who is constantly considering what is best for the entire family as opposed to what will benefit her. It is her selflessness that causes her to contemplate getting an illegal abortion when she finds out she is pregnant. After enduring the constant verbal jabs of her husband and negative input from Beneatha about her adding another person to their already cramped quarters, Ruth decides that the best thing for the family would be for her to terminate her pregnancy. In the 2008 film A Raisin in the Sun, a scene shows Ruth anticipating her “back alley” abortion. As she waits in the rear of the beauty salon, the camera does an extreme close-up on the pot of boiling water that is sterilizing the abortion instruments. With tears in her eyes, Ruth turns the stove off and rushes out of the salon and into the pouring rain. Although the scene has no dialogue, the scene highlights how the financial stress of a family threatens to corrupt even most incorruptible of characters. When Ruth makes the decision to keep her child, she solidifies her position as the moral compass of her family. Ironically, keeping her child was the best thing for her family because it is what helps heal the rift between her and Walter Lee.
Does it sag like a heavy load? Lena (Mama) Younger is a hard-working woman who carries the hopes and dreams of her entire family. Her life has not been picturesque. Until recently, she has had to contend with a mean and unfaithful husband but, like her mirror Ruth, she will do what she must to keep her family united. It is this overwhelming sense of responsibility to her family that causes her to also be one of the biggest hindrances to her family’s maturity. Mama Younger’s love for her children causes her to enable their bad behavior.
Mama Younger smothers her two adult children, a fact that is apparent because they still live with her. Mama Younger is constantly nurturing her daughter Beneatha and treats her like she is a teenager rather than a twenty year-old woman: “MAMA:…Bennie honey, it’s too drafty for you to be sitting ‘round half dressed. Where’s your robe? BENEATHA: In the cleaners. MAMA: Well, go get mine and put it on. BENEATHA: I’m not cold, Mama, honest. MAMA: I know-but you so thin… BEANEATHA: Irritably.]Mama, I’m not cold” (1780). Mama Younger is constantly meddling in the smallest affairs of her family. In fact, she takes her enabling behaviors to an all-time high when she decides to give Walter Lee the bulk of Mr. Younger’s insurance money after he throws a supersized temper tantrum because Mama would not financially support his get-rich-quick scheme.
Through the course of the play, Mama Younger has to learn to take a step back and allow her children the opportunity to make their own decisions. Lena has to learn how to guide her children without outright telling them what they should do. For example, near the end of act three, Mama cautions Lena, “When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you take into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is”. Soon after, Lena gives Walter the opportunity to make the decision about the sale of their new house and, thankfully, he does not disappoint. Mama’s ability to allow her children to make adult decisions is the catalyst for their maturity. In addition, Lena’s efforts also help lighten her burden of having to be the ever-watchful mother; when Beneatha and Walter make good choices on their own, she can rest assured that they have come into manhood and womanhood.
Unbeknownst to many, A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by actual events in Lorraine Hansberry’s childhood. In the 1940s, the Hansberrys faced the issue of housing segregation head-on when they moved into a segregated residential neighborhood. In her essay, Michelle Gordon records how Hansberry recalls, “ my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling the]house all night with a loaded German luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while her father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court”(qtd. in Gordon 121). It was the Hansberrys’ stance that paved the way for the ruling of Shelley v. Kramer, which declared residential segregation unconstitutional (Gordon). Reflecting this difficult reality, all of the main characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun are flawed. However, each character also has very honorable qualities that make him or her sympathetic to audiences. Walter is irresponsible, yet his aspirations are fueled by his desire to see his family prosper. Beneatha can be an opinionated know-it–all, yet she is intelligent, self-assured, and wants to heal people. Ruth could be viewed as a pushover, yet she is always willing to help the family reconcile and she selflessly puts the needs of her family before her own desires. Mama is the meddling matriarch of the family, yet she loves and protects her family with unparalleled fierceness.
Throughout A Raisin in the Sun, each family member goes through a period of turmoil which inevitably ushers him or her into a new level of maturity. Each of the characters has choices and eventually makes the choices that keep the family united. Even though A Raisin in the Sun is a play about urbanization and the effects of segregation, it can also be viewed as an African-American bildungsroman because each of the main character experiences a transition to another level of maturity. Again, one can ask, “What happens to a dream deferred?” A Raisin in the Sun teaches audiences that people don’t have to yield to the negative effects of their environment. Lorraine Hansberry shows that deferred dreams can give birth to resilience, unity, and new dreams.
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